A lot was on the line. The 12 global sponsors shelled out a combined US$860 million while national rights cost upwards of US$20 million. None of this includes incremental expenses on advertising, on- and off-site events, product supply and other “activation” efforts.
Now that the dust has settled on the Beijing Olympics, we have to ask: Was all the expenditure worth it?
To generate a respectable return, an Olympic sponsor should have focused at least 50% of its efforts on the domestic audience. China’s middle class is 150 million-strong and there are another 300-400 in the urban mainstream – not awash in disposable income but still surfing the net and buying mobile phones.
To reach these people, sponsors needed to:
Convey a consistent message that fused a brand’s pre-existing “essence” with the spirit of Beijing 2008. In China, the Olympic values were all about glory and national greatness, and sponsors needed to convey this rather than broadcast generic support for the games or, even worse, pride in official sponsor status.
Leverage the Olympic platform as an opportunity for mass audiences to plug into, i.e. be the brand on the ground. This could have been done with anything from promotions and road shows to virtual communities and retail concepts.
Respond to unexpected events – both victories and setbacks – to deepen consumer affection. For example, no one could have predicted Liu Xiang’s dramatic withdrawal from the 110-meter hurdles.
Overall, international companies outperformed local ones. Blessed with brand equities forged over time, the multinationals were well-positioned to align pre-existing assets with the spirit of Beijing 2008.
Coca-Cola realized the most fully-rounded sponsorship. Practically all television, print and outdoor advertising was beautifully executed. Its shuang qi lai (refreshment rising) tagline managed the hat-trick of: aligning functional and emotional benefits; rooting an Olympic message in historic Coke territories of “bottle equity” and “joyful moments in life”; and blending the brand’s character with soft-edged Chinese nationalism.
Locally tailored programs like bottle design contests and online “Make a Coke Wish” promotions enabled consumers to participate in the excitement while Beijing’s Coke World retail store set new standards in experiential marketing.
Adidas did a fairly good job. Its advertising elegantly fused the brand’s “Impossible is Nothing” rallying cry with Chinese Olympic glory, although creative power petered out during the games. But the brand’s retail concept was a big winner. An Olympic “shoe wall,” covering a broad range of sports will facilitate future expansion beyond soccer, running and basketball.
Some other multinational sponsors acquitted themselves with grace – notably General Electric and UPS, both of which linked their goods and services to operational triumph. The efforts of Visa, Samsung, Budweiser and McDonald’s, however, were a hodgepodge of unrelated promotions and product pushes. Post-Olympics, they are neither stronger nor weaker than they were before.
Among official domestic sponsors, Lenovo’s efforts were robust, albeit at times thematically bland, focusing on the company’s technological and international credibility.
Ads targeting local consumers highlighted Lenovo’s technological prowess as critical to the games’ operational efficiency while global work was too fluffy, describing the Olympics as history’s greatest “idea.” But in airports and on the street, ads were ubiquitous and generated a sense of scale and ThinkPad laptops were featured in practically every CCTV broadcast. Most impressive, though, was the company’s torch relay sponsorship and concurrent promotions of low-price computers in third-, fourth- and fifth-tier cities.
Yili’s “strong China” campaign linked milk’s health benefits with national ambition and it is claimed that these efforts secured a high sponsorship awareness at the expense of rival dairy brand Mengniu. Had Yili integrated this message with on-the-ground promotions and digital initiatives, results could have been even stronger.
Most local brands – such as China Mobile, Bank of China and Haier – resorted to propagandistic celebration ads and clunky product promotions. But the title of worst sponsor goes to Heng Yuan Xiang, a wool and textile manufacturer. Its inane 60-second television spot was divided into five-second sections in which the company’s name was shouted along with the whinnies, barks and bleats of Chinese lunar calendar animals. It caused a public outcry.
Local enterprises were blighted by the same old problems: hierarchical decision-making and sensitivity to political correctness; the lack of an empowered marketing department equipped with budgetary control; absence of consumer research to determine consistent messaging; and inadequate attention to production quality.
It is indeed a pity that, from a marketing perspective, Beijing 2008 did not usher in a new era of international professionalism; progress will continue at an excruciatingly incremental pace.
Finally, it is worth noting that some of the most impressive Olympic efforts were undertaken by non-sponsors. Sportswear manufacturers did particularly well. Nike, Li Ning and Anta each tapped into the spirit of Beijing 2008 without crossing ethical intellectual property lines.
Nike’s efforts were, in a Western sense, typically individualistic and time will tell whether the message resonated deeply with the public. However, its response to Liu Xiang’s withdrawal was brilliant. Riding a wave of mass sympathy, Nike quickly produced an ad that turned his failure into something approaching heroism: “Because I love sports,” it said, “I love the pain that comes with sports.” The company applied balm to a nation’s wounded pride without debasing its brand’s values.
When Li Ning flew around the national stadium to light the Olympic flame, he won the gold for ambush marketing. But the company’s other efforts were broad but unfocused. Li Ning logos adorned the apparel of scattered Chinese teams, including men’s and women’s gymnastics, diving and table tennis. Although each of these sports is quintessentially Chinese, the public ultimately reveres big stars and grand displays, so the magic torch moment made up for fragmentation.
Anta, the nation’s largest producer of sports shoes and apparel, but less well-known than Li Ning, also made its mark. (Full disclosure: Anta is a JWT client.) Its brand vision, “Keep Moving,” morphed into a primal declaration of national perseverance in the run-up to the Olympics – when China suffered the double blow of torch relay protests and the Sichuan earthquake – and throughout the games themselves.
Anta was also the only company to quickly produce merchandise that glorified China’s 51 gold medals.
So was Olympic sponsorship worth it? For Coca-Cola, which married brand vision with the spirit of 2008 while maximizing consumer engagement, the answer is yes. For many others, the games were a money pit filled with disjointed efforts that allowed ambush marketers to steal thunder. Let’s hope London 2012’s sponsors learned a few lessons in Beijing.